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Book Talk: German Photographer Aims Lens at Polar Wildlife

By: Nick Zieminski

NEW YORK, NY (REUTERS).- Earth's polar extremes may seem monochromatic and hostile to life, but a new book shows they are teeming with colorful creatures.

"Antarctic" includes some 180 images, each spread across two large-format pages. It aims to elicit an emotional reaction from wildlife enthusiasts -- and anyone concerned about the environment -- by showing animals in often intimate close-up, contrasted with panoramas of the icy landscapes they inhabit.

Despite the title, about half the pictures are from the northern Arctic. None were altered, but photographer Michael Poliza occasionally tricks the eye.

One image seems impossible, unless the penguin aimed a camera at its own feet. In fact, Poliza took the shot, then flipped it upside-down.

Poliza has published two photo books on Africa, and aims to do one for each continent. He spoke with Reuters about the Polar regions, how digital photography has changed his craft, and why shooting in Europe is a challenge.

Q: Very few people ever get to go to Antarctica. Most get their impressions from popular culture, like "March of the Penguins" or the Werner Herzog documentary. Does Antarctica show evidence of global warming? And did you set out to document endangered places and places?

A: "My exposure was mostly limited to the Antarctic peninsula, where most of the life is happening. Further into the Antarctic, it becomes just ice and not that interesting to a photographer. I visited four times. Have I personally seen climate change and global warming? I have not.

"I was getting a lot of feedback about the effect images have on people. I wanted to give attention to an area that has not really been getting much coverage in terms of images, and

to look at it more from the angle of animals and wildlife."

Q: Why did you emphasize images of animals' faces?

A: "I'm trying to create emotions. The intended audience is anyone who enjoys nature. We have so much critical reporting, which we need, but we cannot feel responsible for everything in the world. We only feel responsible for things that touch us. I hope to create a bit of responsibility and a sense of, 'Maybe it's not too late. Maybe I need to fight for this.'"

Q: You shot with Canon digital cameras. Is there any argument left for shooting on film?

A: "For me, no. I went digital in 1998. When I circumnavigated the globe (for Stern magazine) we needed to send images via satellite. The benefits outweigh the disadvantages, if there are any left. I owe a debt to digital photography because I've learned a lot through it. I can see at the end of the day what I've done, what can be done better."

Q: Do you see your photography as a form of journalism, or as art, and where's the dividing line between the two?

A: "It's probably a mixture. I want to report and document, but I try to capture textures, unusual angles. I work a lot with graphical patterns, like a group of penguins all looking in one direction, and one looking at me. I like abstractions."

Q: Digital tools have democratized photography. You can share pictures on Picasa or Flickr, you can print your own photo book through Blurb. What does a pro shooter think?

A: "In terms of the overall level of photography, it's a good thing. It has also posed a serious threat to professional photographers that used to sell stock images for hundreds of dollars. I'd say, go with the times, you can't change it. You see a lot of great photography coming from amateurs that were at the right time in the right place."

Q: Does it marginalize art photography? You're scrolling through photos on an iPhone, surely not their ideal format.

A: "It's part of the whole discussion, like, do we need books or can we just use Amazon's Kindle? I've got a Kindle but you wouldn't look at a book like this on it. There's a German word, "haptik," it's about feeling something, experiencing it through vision and touch.

"A book is very special. I'm not against advancing technology, but I do think coffee-table books will be with us for quite some time. You can also argue tourism is adding to the carbon footprint, (yet) sustainable tourism can do magic in terms of conservation."

Q: Do you have another book project in the works?

A: I'm doing a book on South Africa in time for the World Cup, and a children's version of "Antarctic." The next project is Australia and New Zealand. I'm going to do a series on all of the continents. Europe is last."

Q: What's left to shoot in Europe?

A: "I almost don't know what to do there. It will be difficult to get this kind of book done in Europe. I hear a lot of good things about the (primeval) forests of Poland."

Q: Does it frustrate you no unexplored places are left?

A: "I would love to have lived 100 years ago in Africa -- but with my gadgets. To be privileged to see, not 200 impalas, but one million. I love the wilderness."

Polar Wildlife | Book Talk | Michael Poliza |

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